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How Loretta Lynn, country music and a rural Republican tide changed U.S. politics

Loretta Lynn campaigned for both Bush presidents. She's shown here with President George W. Bush in 2000 in Little Rock, Ark.
Paul J. Richards
AFP via Getty Images
Loretta Lynn campaigned for both Bush presidents. She's shown here with President George W. Bush in 2000 in Little Rock, Ark.

Millions mourned the passing of country music legend Loretta Lynn, who died at the age of 90 on Tuesday, with obituaries and tributes recalling her songs, her voice, her authenticity and her charm.

There was relatively little mention of her politics.

Some stories were written recalling the feminist impact of her 1975 hit "The Pill," and even her earlier standby: "Don't Come Home a Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)."

Moviegoers enchanted by actress Sissy Spacek's Oscar-winning portrayal of Lynn in the 1980 film Coal Miner's Daughter could impute to her any political attitudes they liked.

But Lynn was very much a part of politics at several stages of her career.

At the peak of her fame in the 1960s and 1970s, Lynn was part of a key change in the politics of country music — a change akin to the shifting partisan leanings of the music's most loyal fans.

That change made a big difference in American politics when it happened, helping to elect Republican presidents such as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and both Presidents Bush.

And it continues to make a big difference today.

Some of Lynn's fans were surprised this week to learn she had supported former President Donald Trump

Lynn once told an interviewer she had gone with Trump in part because her audiences would have booed her if she had endorsed Hillary Clinton. (The 2016 Democratic nominee had alienated some country music fans with what seemed a slighting reference to the phrase "Stand By Your Man," the title of Tammy Wynette's ethos-defining song about marriage.)

Surprise at Lynn's alignment with Trump was a reprise of the reaction some of her fans had when she appeared on stage in 1988 with the Republican nominee for president, George H.W. Bush.

On that occasion, referring to one of her own signature songs ("You're Looking at Country"), Lynn told the crowd and the cameras that looking at Bush was "looking at country." And in case there was any doubt, she leaned into the microphone and proclaimed: "I know George Bush, and he is country."

That provoked a few smiles and much head scratching at the time. Bush had been born in New England and raised in Washington, D.C., the son of a senator from Connecticut. Bush went from a super-elite private prep school to Yale, and after Navy service and a few years in Midland, Texas, setting up an oil business, he moved to a well-heeled part of Houston and from there back to Washington as a member of Congress, director of the CIA, chairman of the Republican Party and Reagan's vice president.

Whether Lynn's description fit him or not, Bush spent much of 1988 doing his best to earn it — getting photographed driving a truck and professing his deep love of deep-fried pork rinds.

But none of that was what really mattered. If Loretta Lynn said Bush was country, in a sense, he was. She was not inventing a false biography for him; she was communicating a certain shared faith with her audience. She was telling them Bush would act as their guardian, defending what her fans regarded as America (and certainly doing that better than that year's Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, the technocratic governor of Massachusetts). Lynn later campaigned for the second President Bush, George W. Bush.

Of course no one country singer, no matter how beloved, could confer the presidency on Bush or any other candidate — not in 1988 or in any other year. But the motivations behind Lynn's endorsement mattered because they expressed changes underway over a period of years in agricultural America and among middle-class voters who worked for wages and did not have a college degree.

For generations, those voters had been the bedrock of the Democratic Party. In the South, the Democratic Party had been the dominant political identity since before the Civil War. With the Great Depression and the New Deal in the 1930s, Democrats had greater appeal in the rest of rural America, even while remaining strongest in the rural South. Franklin D. Roosevelt attained the status of a saint.

"Good God almighty," shouted the words of one country song's chorus, "He's the poor man's friend!"

George Vecsey, the New York Times writer who collaborated on the memoir, Coal Miner's Daughter (the basis for the film by that name), reports that Lynn inherited some of that FDR worship from her father.

"Daddy thought [FDR] hung the moon," Lynn told Vecsey. "George, you write a few things about FDR."

But in the later decades of the 20th century, the country changed and the allegiances of many artists changed as well. In the years of Lynn's early career, in the 1960s and 1970s, when folk and rock heroes were increasingly identified with causes of the left, their issues and activism alienated many traditional Democrats.

Many gravitated to Alabama's firebrand Gov. George Wallace, an ardent segregationist who ran for president as the nominee of the American Independent Party in 1968.

Never a threat to actually win the White House, Wallace had the potential to block the bid of the Republican Richard Nixon. Wallace did win five Southern states in 1968, and had he won a few more he could have denied Nixon the majority he needed to win the Electoral College.

In that bid, and in subsequent, as in his campaigns for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Wallace leaned on major figures in country music, such as Roy Acuff and Ferlin Husky. They and other iconic figures headlined star-studded shows for Wallace at the Ryman Auditorium, the original site of the Grand Ole' Opry in Nashville and the "mother church of country music."

Among those who noticed was Nixon himself, who had recruited country entertainers for his own campaign in 1968 and who would do so again in his reelection effort four years later.

Along the way, Nixon made sure he visited the Ryman and paid homage to its denizens. The Country Music Association responded with a commemorative album called Thank You Mr. President. It featured what was said to be his favorite, Merle Haggard's anthemic "Okie from Muskogee" — and also Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter."

There's been a hearkening to heritage in both music and politics

Lynn was always close to her audience. Her Butcher Holler, Ky., origins shone through all she said and sang. She embodied both want and aspiration, both humility and genuine pride that could be fierce.

Lynn was always about the private pride made public, and yet also the sweetness of the bond. It was why people were surprised to find they might have differences with her when they did, and why they could get past those differences to honor her art and her life.

She was also part of a generation of country music stars in the 1960s and 1970s who defined their public personae largely in contrast with the folk and rock stars of their day.

If the Woodstock Nation opposed the Vietnam War while backing civil rights and radical lifestyles, the Nashville sound was in tune with traditional American social norms. Country music artists seemed to be circling the wagons in defense of America as they — and their fans — remembered it.

No surprise then that so many Republican candidates since then have identified themselves with country artists who hearken to heritage, to the way things were. Reagan had buttons that said "Let's Make America Great Again" long before Trump shortened the motto and put it on a hat.

If Bush Sr. was an unlikely hero of the countryside, Trump was even more so. Trump did not have even ephemeral connections to country life or country music, but he forged a bond of affinity with those who did.

He was, of course, from a wealthy family in New York. But he had created a tough businessman character on a reality TV show and was able to translate that into a "tell it like it is" political persona as a candidate. He also made a show of embracing the pop culture tastes and social attitudes of blue-collar America, especially those of rural working-class whites.

Trump was also able to tap the feisty, often defensive spirit that has long informed the Appalachian region (broadly defined) that spawned much of what Americans came to call "country western." It is akin to the fiercely defiant spirit that animates J.D. Vance's memoir Hillbilly Elegy and that attracted Trump's endorsement of Vance's Senate candidacy in Ohio.

Before World War II, country music was often called "hillbilly," according to the authoritative historian of the genre, Bill C. Malone, whose volume with Tracey E.W. Laird, Country Music, USA, was credited in Ken Burns' PBS documentary Country Music: An American Family Story.

It was not always a term of derision or dismissal, Malone notes. But when it was used as such, it served as both fighting words and a badge of belonging. Malone said he knew country singers who "privately described themselves as hillbillies but responded bitterly if someone else called them that."

That particular sense of bitterness had long been exploited by expert local and state politicians. In the 1960s, candidates such as Wallace and Nixon tapped it to fuel their presidential campaigns.

Not all country artists have leaned to the right, of course. The guitar demigod Chet Atkins was a liberal who worked with many other kinds of musicians — including the Beatles. Willie Nelson, author of hits for Patsy Cline as well as for himself as far back as the 1950s, has been a populist pillar on the left who campaigned for the last Democratic governor of Texas, Ann Richards, as well as other politicians. Dolly Parton has been a longtime advocate for LGBTQ rights.

The Dixie Chicks were sailing atop the country charts when their opposition to the second President Bush and the Iraq War knocked them off course. More recently, we have seen country superstars such as Taylor Swift turn away from years of an apolitical posture to speak with the voice of their own generation.

The same could be said for Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves and others who have raised money and spoken out for causes far afield from the Nashville orthodoxy of half a century ago.

In time, it is possible we will look back and see them and their contributions as transformative as well.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.